9 Tips for Taking Your Climbing from the Gym to the Crag

With ropes hung, routes marked, and a trained staff on hand to ensure safety, the rock gym is a great place to learn how to climb. But, pulling on plastic just isn’t the same as climbing on real rock, and many climbers eventually look to expand their horizons to local crags. If you’re considering taking your climbing outside this year but aren’t quite sure where to start, here are some things you need to know.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

1. Pick Your Discipline, Then Get the Gear

Bouldering and top-roping are the main options for most new-to-the-outdoors climbers. Both styles involve some common gear, namely shoes and chalk, but also require some items specific to the activity. Thus, deciding on a style is an important initial step.

Bouldering is a popular way for gym climbers to transition outdoors, because it doesn’t require knowledge about anchor building or belaying. When bouldering, climbers use a crash pad, rather than a rope, to protect themselves when they fall. Bouldering crash pads come in a variety of sizes and styles, and it’s not uncommon to use multiple ones to protect your climb. Although bouldering requires less technical knowledge, the physical climbing encountered is often more difficult than what’s found on top-rope routes.

Climbers who have been top-roping in the gym can replicate that experience outside if they know how to build anchors and have the gear required to do so. The specific gear will vary between locations, but a static line, a few slings, a cordelette, and a handful of locking carabiners—larger carabiners like the Black Diamond RockLock Screwgate are great—will usually do the trick at areas with first-timer friendly setups. In addition to anchor-building gear, invest in a belay device, your own climbing rope, and a harness, if you’ve been relying on a gym rental. Top-ropers should also add a helmet to their kit, as time spent below a cliff exposes you to the threat of something being knocked down on you.

Some climbers who lead in the gym may also want to take the sharp end their first time climbing outside. For those looking to jump right into sport climbing, check out our sport climbing gear list.

2. Get the Guidebook

Doing some research before picking a destination saves a lot of time and aggravation. For example, does the area you’re planning on visiting have fixed anchors, or will you have to build your own? Guidebooks are a valuable resource for learning about what to expect at a climbing area, and offer up information on everything from where to park to what gear to bring. Although guidebooks are helpful, an internet search lets you broaden your knowledge of an area and get up-to-date information about access and conditions.

Pro Tip: If it’s your first time out, avoid routes that the guidebook says require trad gear (camming units and nuts) for building the top-rope anchor.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

3. Pick the Right Location

Choosing the right location for your first time climbing outside can make the difference between success and frustration. Boulderers will want to find spots with a wide variety of problems and safe landings. A few popular destinations for newer boulderers in the Northeast are Hammond Pond, just outside of Boston, Massachusetts; Lincoln Woods, a short drive from Providence, Rhode Island; and Pawtuckaway State Park, about 30 minutes from Manchester, New Hampshire. Fellow gym climbers can also be a great resource, so don’t hesitate to ask around the gym’s bouldering cave about nearby areas to visit.

New outdoor climbers looking to top-rope should seek out sites with easy setups. Ideally, the location will have a diverse grouping of climbs, easy access to the cliff top, and simple anchoring solutions. Greater Boston has a plethora of excellent crags for first-time top-ropers, including Hammond Pond, Quincy Quarries, Rattlesnake Rocks, College Rock, and Crow Hill. So, too, does Connecticut, with Ragged Mountain being a popular destination.

Pro Tip: A 75- to 100-foot static line is a great solution for when the guidebook recommends bringing “long slings” for top-rope anchors.

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4. Partner Up

No matter if you’re bouldering or top-roping, a good climbing partner is critical. Although bouldering can be a solitary sport, it’s much easier and safer (and more fun!) with a partner. A good bouldering partner spots you when you fall and moves the pads underneath you as you climb. They also are great for helping you decipher moves and keeping the stoke high.

A top-roping partner is essential, as they will literally be holding your life in their hands while belaying. In a perfect world, a new outdoor climber’s partner will have more experience and can serve as a mentor through the transition.

5. Don’t Set Your Expectations Too High

Although gym and outdoor climbing have many similarities, the transition may be challenging. For instance, the grades are harder. So, even if you’ve sent all the “hard stuff” indoors, don’t plan on crushing your first day on real rock. You’ll also need to re-train the way you think. Outdoors, the routes aren’t marked with brightly colored tape and may be difficult to follow. In addition, real rock holds may be hidden and may be greatly different from what you’ve encountered at the gym. Along with these points, indoor climbers often start to learn a gym’s holds. While the gym may change specific routes, climbers have likely gotten familiar with approaching particular holds.

6. If You’re Climbing on a Rope, Learn Some Basic Skills

If you’re going to be climbing on a rope, get familiar with some basic skills. Even something that you’ve been doing in the gym, like belaying, can be complicated outside due to hazards like rocks, uneven ground, and roots. Furthermore, if a climber is heavier than the belayer, the use of a ground anchor might be necessary. Speaking of belays, if you had to execute a belay escape, could you? To prepare, spend a few minutes at the end of each gym session to practice these skills before going outside.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

7. Hit the Books (and Not the Guidebook)

Before heading to the crag, take a moment to hit the books, and brush up on the techniques and systems needed for outdoor climbing. A Falcon Guide: Toproping is one of many great books available to new outdoor climbers. For climbers interested in learning to advance their systems, in addition to their skills, to the next level, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills covers everything from basic to advanced topics in all climbing genres.

8. Safety is Critical

Whether you’re climbing inside or outside, the sport is dangerous. But, the outdoors has far more hazards to manage. Here are a few tips to keep you safe:

  • Close your top-rope system by tying a knot at the end of your rope. That way, you can’t lower the climber off the end.
  • Always be mindful about where the cliff edge is, especially when you’re setting up a top-rope anchor. Anchoring yourself in while building your anchor is a great way to stay safe.
  • Rocks break and nearby parties sometimes knock stuff off while they’re setting up. Wear your helmet even when you’re not the one climbing to protect your head.
  • Boulderers should scout the descent and be comfortable with it before committing to the climb.
  • For boulderers, falling is almost as important of a skill as climbing. Practice correctly falling—ideally, with slightly bent legs to absorb impact, and avoid leading with your hands to protect your shoulders, arms, wrists, and fingers—and spend some time identifying safe landing zones before you head up.

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9. Take a Lesson

If you’re interested in getting outside but don’t feel confident doing it yourself, sign up for a lesson with the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School. In no time at all, the Climbing School’s AMGA-accredited guides will have you familiar with the fundamentals of building a top-rope anchor and mitigating outdoor climbing hazards.

Can you think of any other gym-to-crag tips? Share them in the comments!


Alpha Guide: Mount Washington via the Lion Head Winter Route

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

Take on a genuine mountaineering challenge by going for a winter ascent on the Northeast’s tallest peak. 

Mount Washington is the pinnacle of winter mountaineering in the Northeast, and the Lion Head Winter Route is the trail of choice for many looking to summit this iconic mountain. Although this is the least technical way to summit the “Rock Pile,” mountaineers will be challenged by everything from the route’s steep, icy terrain to the mountain’s notorious “worst weather in the world.” Depending on the day, you could find yourself huddling behind one of the summit’s buildings, trying to escape the wind, or proudly posing in front of the summit sign while taking in grand views of the Presidential Range.

Quick Facts

Distance: 8.2 miles, out-and-back
Time to Complete: 1 day
Difficulty: ★★★★
Scenery:★★★★★


Season: November through March
Fees/Permits: None
Contact: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/whitemountain/recarea?recid=78538

Download

Turn-By-Turn

Parking for the Lion Head Trail is at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center in Gorham, just north of Jackson on Route 16. It’s about a 25-minute drive from North Conway or Gorham.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Gearing Up

The Pinkham Notch Visitor Center (44.257320, -71.253052) is a great place to get ready. The gear room, in the basement, has tables and benches that are perfect for getting organized, tying your boots, and doing those last-minute gear checks. It also has bathrooms and a water fountain, and snacks and meals can be purchased upstairs.

Equally important, the AMC posts the Mount Washington Observatory’s daily Higher Summits Forecast and the Mount Washington Avalanche Center’s daily avalanche forecast on a cork board in the visitor center’s basement. Make sure to read both! And, while you’re there, sign the winter hiker register, too.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Starting Out

To get on the trail, leave the basement, and follow the sidewalk towards the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center’s main entrance. Continue past the entrance and around the back of the building to the large sign marking the beginning of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, which you’ll take for the first 1.7 miles and more than 1,000 feet of elevation.

The easy-to-follow Tuckerman Ravine Trail begins as a very rocky dirt road and is wide enough to allow side-by-side hiking. Depending on the weather, trail conditions range from ice-covered rocks to packed snow. In most cases, starting out in MICROspikes is usually a good idea.

From the Visitor Center, the trail is moderate for the first few minutes, and then begins to climb consistently. As it climbs, an occasional path cuts off to the left, heading over to the Sherburne Ski Trail. A bit higher up, there is also a signed cutoff to the right for the Huntington Ravine Trail (44.261887, -71.269882). Hikers should ignore all of these cutoffs.

Trees protect this portion of the trail, keeping the wind and wind chill at bay. And, although the trees also limit the views—especially compared to the awesome ones you’ll get once you’re above treeline—the Tuckerman Ravine Trail does pass a few key scenic spots as it climbs out of the valley. The most notable are the two bridges that cross the Ellis River and the Cutler River and the waterfall—or icicle, in this case—Crystal Cascade. It might be tempting to dig the camera out, but don’t stop. You have a long way to go, and the days are short this time of year.

If the weather permits, you’ll also get a preview of the Lion Head as you move up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, giving you an appreciation for the route’s expansive scale and how much distance you have left to travel.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Cut Off

After about 1.7 miles, the junction with the Huntington Ravine fire road (44.263844, -71.277946) is on the right. The junction is well-marked, with a sign pointing toward the base of the Lion Head Winter Route. The wide, flat fire road makes for easy hiking. Take it a short distance to a junction (44.264603, -71.279106). Look for a rescue cache on the trail’s opposite side for confirmation.

The flat area at the Winter Route’s base is a great spot to grab some food and water and add a layer. Most people, too, put their crampons on here and get their ice axe out.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Rock Step

The steeps on the Lion Head Winter Route come pretty quickly. Climbing along a tree-lined trail, the route gains almost 1,800 feet in elevation.

While most of the climbing is on steep but easy snow, there is a short, 30-foot, rocky section near the beginning that has some exposure. Almost all the guided parties carry a short section of rope to use as a hand line, but it is probably unnecessary if you are comfortable climbing in crampons.

Pro Tip: The Lion Head Winter Route is the Whites’ most popular guided winter route, and there is sometimes a bottleneck at the rock step. So that you can maintain your pace, try to stay ahead of guided groups, if you see them gearing up at the base.

Above the rock step, the route continues up, staying in the trees until it eventually breaks treeline. Around treeline, you’ll find numerous spots along the side of the trail to take a break (44.264332, -71.286575) and enjoy the excellent view of the Wildcat Mountain Ski Area across the notch. Since you’ll be fully exposed to the wind from here on, now is a great time to don your above-treeline gear. On windy days, remember full-face protection, including goggles.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Lion Head

From treeline, the trail continues up over open, rocky terrain towards Lion Head proper (44.264.042, -71.291275). As you climb, you’ll probably feel the wind speed increasing. And, be on the lookout for another steep and exposed section just before the Lion Head. It’s easy, but you don’t want to fall.

As you approach the Lion Head, you should evaluate the weather, the wind, and your group’s motivation. If the wind’s too strong, the weather’s getting worse, or it has taken longer to get here than anticipated, this is a good place to turn around without significant consequence.

Crossing the Alpine Garden

Above the Lion Head, the trail continues along the edge of Tuckerman Ravine, crossing the Alpine Garden. If it is a nice day, enjoy the view of the ravine in all its splendor. But, don’t get sucked too far left, especially if it’s windy. You don’t want to get blown in!

This section is also likely to be one of the hike’s windiest segments. Since the trail here is mostly flat, it’s a great idea to hustle across as quickly as possible. The prevailing wind is west to northwest; so, once you are in the shadow of the summit cone, you’ll likely get a brief reprieve.

After a short time, the trail intersects with the Alpine Garden Trail (44.265045, -71.295603). Some scrub here makes a passable wind break, but you’ll probably want to keep going. From the junction, continue straight on the Lion Head Trail.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Split Rock

The trail begins climbing again after the junction, crossing a couple of open snowfields on the way towards Split Rock (44.265850, -71.301437). Since there are few landmarks here, route finding is critical. Moreover, the consequences of a sliding fall on this section are significant, so make sure to have your crampons on and ice axe ready.

Split Rock is easily identifiable: As the name implies, it’s a large boulder that is split in half. Split Rock is also the last place that offers passable protection from the weather before you reach the summit. Many parties choose to take advantage of the flattish area and windbreak to grab a snack, make a final determination of the weather, and prepare for their summit push before following the trail through the boulder itself. Once you’re ready, the next junction (44.265980, -71.302155) is just a few minutes ahead.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Summit Cone

The Lion Head Trail traverses west for a short ways before connecting with the Tuckerman Ravine Trail at a large cairn. From here, turn right and follow the cairns uphill on the final 0.4 miles to the top. Frequently, this section provides a respite from the wind. Enjoy the break, as the wind will only increase as you near the top.

The Tuckerman Ravine Trail leads to the first sign of civilization—the Auto Road (44.269550, -71.302048). Shortly thereafter, you’ll pass the tracks for the Cog Railway, before you come to the final small hill leading to the summit (44.270424, -71.303375).

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Summit Pose

If it is a nice day, spend some time to enjoy the summit view of the Presidentials and the surrounding White Mountains. More likely though, ripping winds and cold temperatures will have you taking shelter by the buildings and putting on an extra layer before you make your way to the summit sign to get the requisite shot.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Getting Back in One Piece

To quote the world-famous mountaineer Ed Viesturs, “The summit is just a halfway point.” Although getting back to Pinkham Notch is as simple as reversing course, you have ample opportunities to get lost or disoriented above treeline, especially when the weather is at its worst. So, take the time at trail junctures to ensure you’re descending in the right direction, and look for memorable landmarks. Most notable are the large cairns marking the Tuckerman-Lion Head junction, Split Rock, the scrub at the Alpine Garden Trail junction, and the flat area on top of the Lion Head. As you make your way towards treeline, look for several sets of reflectors attached to the trees for descending at night or in deteriorating conditions.

The final crux for hikers will be reversing the rock step and the terrain just above it. Once again, many guided parties use a rope here, but those comfortable climbing in crampons should be fine simply downclimbing.


Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Kit

  • The Lion Head Winter Route is steep and often icy. Because of this, an ice axe and crampons are essential equipment. The Black Diamond Raven Ice Axe and Contact Crampons are great choices.
  • The combination of high winds, snow, and ice often necessitates the use of goggles, like the Smith I/O 7, to protect your eyes and maintain vision. We suggest bringing a second pair in the event one freezes.
  • Summiting Mount Washington in the winter is a long day even in the best conditions—not to mention, the days are shorter this time of year. A headlamp like the Black Diamond Revolt helps prevent getting caught in the dark and provides peace of mind if you fall behind schedule.
  • It’s easy to get disoriented or lost above treeline on Mount Washington, especially if it’s snowing and the wind is howling. A route plan, pre-set waypoints on a phone-based mapping app like GAIA GPS, and a map and compass as backup are all extremely valuable when you’re trying to stay on course no matter the weather.
  • A heavy puffy coat, like the Black Diamond Stance Parka (Men’s/Women’s), and summit mittens, such as the EMS Summit (Men’s/Women’s), are must-haves for extreme cold. Using chemical hand warmers is also a great way to keep your hands warm.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Keys to the Trip

  • Mount Washington’s reputation for the “world’s worst weather” is well-deserved, and weather conditions play a huge role in any successful ascent via the Lion Head Winter Route. Before you head out, make sure to read the Mount Washington Observatory’s Higher Summits Forecast. If the conditions don’t look right (for instance, high winds are forecast or the temperatures at higher elevations are just too cold), consider a different trip for the day: A hike up to HoJo’s at the base of Tuckerman Ravine or skiing the Sherburne Trail is a nice alternative that never leaves the protection of the trees.
  • Similarly, if the weather starts to turn during your hike, bailing is a smart decision. After all, the weather rarely gets better the higher you go, and the “Rock Pile” isn’t going anywhere.
  • Before leaving the Visitor Center, take a moment to make sure the Lion Head Winter Route is actually open. Its opening depends on the amount of snow received, and in recent years—like the 2017-2018 winter season—it has not opened until late December.
  • Early starts on Mount Washington are par for the course. The AMC’s Joe Dodge Lodge is a great place to stay if you want to roll right from bed to the trail. Accommodation options include private and bunk rooms, with most options encompassing breakfast and dinner.
  • Not confident doing this journey yourself? Consider a guided ascent of Mount Washington with the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School. EMS guides have climbed the “Rock Pile” hundreds of times each winter, and have the skills and knowledge to get you up and down the mountain safely. And, if you’re looking for more than just the up-and-back, consider combining a guided climb with an overnight at the Mount Washington Observatory.
  • Moat Mountain Smokehouse & Brewing Co., or simply The Moat, is the place for Conway-area climbers to eat, grab a pint, and brag about everything from their successful summits to just how bad the weather was above treeline.

Current Conditions

Have you hiked the Lion Head Winter Route on Mount Washington recently? Post your experience and the trail conditions (with the date of your hike) in the comments for others!


Outings for a Presidents' Day in the Presidentials

Presidents’ Day falls on the third Monday of every February. In the Northeast, New Hampshire’s White Mountains make the perfect place to celebrate the holiday. Home to nine 4,000-footers named after past Presidents, they offer numerous outdoor activities with a historical connection. So, whether you’re looking to ski, climb, or hike, here’s how to have a genuinely Presidential Presidents’ Day.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Forget the White House – Visit the White Room

Presidents’ Day originated in the 1880s to commemmorate George Washington’s birthday. For those looking to slide on snow while also honoring the nation’s first President, the slopes of Mount Washington deliver something for everyone.

The Sherburne Ski Trail, often called “the Sherbie,” links the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center with HoJo’s, the caretaker’s cabin at Hermit Lake. Dating back to the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps, established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of his New Deal Legislation, built the Sherbie just for skiers. Considering the innovations since then, most will find the Sherbie sufficiently broad for turning and never extremely steep. As David Goodman notes in his book AMC Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast, the Sherburne never exceeds 24 degrees and is as much as 60 feet across at its widest point.

Although many advanced skiers view the Sherburne Trail as a quick way to descend from the steeper Tuckerman Ravine, it’s a worthy destination by itself. Because of its moderate pitch and tree-lined location, it’s a great place to head when the weather above treeline is unfavorable, if avalanche danger is high, or to just gain confidence on less-consequential terrain.

The trail, however, is for downhill use only. You can access it via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, which also leaves Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. Heading up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, skiers will notice various entry points to the Sherbie on their left. As another popular option, you can cut over below HoJo’s to avoid the trail’s flat upper portion.

Of course, the Sherbie is just one of Mount Washington’s fantastic ski routes. You can find other intermediate backcountry skiing along the Cog Railway, while the Gulf of Slides and the iconic Tuckerman Ravine present more advanced options.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Better than Climbing the Political Ladder  

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

In the 1970s, Congress officially moved Presidents’ Day to the third Monday of February to give federal workers more three-day weekends. But, many believe that the move also broadened the holiday’s scope by additionally commemorating Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (February 15th). If you fall into this camp, get your presidential celebration started on Mount Lincoln.

While most people get to the summit via Franconia Ridge, ice climbing Lincoln’s Throat is the most direct way up. Viewed from a distance, Lincoln’s Throat is the pronounced gully between Lincoln and Lafayette that tops out on Franconia Ridge just below Lincoln’s summit.

The route also offers a bit of everything (except crowds) for alpine climbers. You’ll hike or bushwack off trail, do steep snow climbing, climb a single moderately rated WI3 ice pitch, and have the opportunity to summit a 4,000-footer. Or, if you choose to descend down the Old Bridle Path, you’ll get in two 4,000-footers.

If Lincoln Throat’s sole ice pitch isn’t fully formed, is rotten, or is over your head, consider alternatives. However, those involve mixed climbing, and not the type you’re thinking of. Instead of rock and ice, you’ll find krumholtz and snow. These might be less treacherous, but they’re also slower and more frustrating.

Consider making this trip early in the season or in low-snow years. But, if you’re going when heavy snow covers the ground, be sure to bring snowshoes, an avalanche kit, and the knowledge of how to navigate avalanche terrain.

Of course, if this President-worthy climb gives you a case of the willies, you can always check out the beginner-friendly Willey’s Slide in Crawford Notch. It’s not on a peak named after a President, but on a clear day, you’ll get a great view of the southern Presidentials.     

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Don’t Settle for Fake Views

Over time, the public consensus about Presidents’ Day has broadened even further. These days, we think of it as a celebration of all past Presidents. Fortunately, the White Mountains include eight more 4,000-foot peaks named after Presidents (Adams, Madison, Jefferson, Monroe, Eisenhower, Pierce, and Garfield) or with a Presidential-sounding name. For the latter, Jackson is actually named after New Hampshire State Geologist Charles Jackson, not the seventh President, Andrew Jackson.

Of these, Mount Pierce—named after the only President born in New Hampshire—and Mount Garfield are both great options for a moderate day hike with fantastic views. For more of a challenge, Mount Adams (named after John Adams) is one of the Northeast 115’s toughest winter climbs. And, if you’re supremely motivated and the weather is good, consider attempting a Presidential Traverse. In one trip, you’ll hopefully bag Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, Pierce, and Jackson.

Although the President might spend his days in the White House, you can get out of the house, away from the office, and into the fresh air to honor our nation’s past leaders. Let us know how you spent your Presidents’ Day in the comments below.


Alpha Guide: Ice Climb Shoestring Gully

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

Easily accessible alpine-style climbing at a modest grade and in an amazing setting make Shoestring Gully a must-do climb for ice climbers of all levels.

An ascent of Shoestring Gully in New Hampshire’s Crawford Notch is a rite of passage for aspiring ice climbers in the Northeast. Offering 2,500 feet of varied climbing, an incredible view of Crawford Notch, and an alpine feel without the above-treeline weather and exposure, Shoestring Gully is perhaps the best moderate ice climb in New Hampshire.

Quick Facts

Distance: 4 miles round-trip and 2,200 feet of elevation gain
Time to Complete: Half day
Difficulty: ★★★ (WI2, Grade III)
Scenery: ★★★★


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Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Turn-By-Turn

Shoestring Gully is located off Route 302 a few miles south of Crawford Notch and the AMC Highland Center, with the best parking at the Webster Cliff Trailhead (44.170673, -71.388153). The parking area accommodates anywhere from five to 10 cars, but space fluctuates depending on snowfall. This is a popular climb, so parking spots fill up quickly. There is additional parking available along 302 in both directions, but will add roughly an extra half-mile of hiking in each direction to your outing.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Acing the Approach

From the Webster Cliff Trailhead, the most straightforward approach to the gully is crossing Route 302 and hiking up the Webster Cliff Trail. The trail is flat and, after you walk for a few minutes, comes to a bridge that crosses the Saco River. Take the bridge across, and at the trail junction slightly uphill from the river (44.171936, -71.385475), turn left (upstream) onto the Saco River Trail. The trail is often icy, however; if you find that’s the case, this is a good spot to put on either MICROspikes or crampons.

Follow the Saco River Trail for approximately 0.5 miles, until you see the climber’s path leading uphill on the right (44.175751, -71.391571). Looking for a clue that this is the right gully? As a great landmark for heading uphill, a large boulder displays large painted trail markers for the Saco River Trail. Also, thanks to the popularity of this climb, the approach heading uphill is usually pretty broken in.

Historically, climbers have approached by parking roughly a half-mile further north on Route 302 and crossing the Saco at an old dam. Over the years, however, the crossing has gotten a bit spicy. Although this approach puts you directly below the gully and is shorter overall, it also means a road march back to the car on the descent.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Getting to the Start of the Climb

The climber’s path slowly gains altitude as it steadily moves into Shoestring Gully. Once in the gully, the trail steepens as you ascend a bouldery stream bed that gradually opens up near the first ice flow. If you haven’t yet put on your crampons, this is the place to do so, as this section is often slippery, and the “real” climbing is fast approaching.

After roughly 1,000 feet of elevation gain, climbers will encounter the day’s first ice flow (44.178432, -71.386986) at the top of the stream bed. Just below this bulge, a well-worn flat spot is perfect for getting kitted—harness, helmet, crampons, ice tools, rope, and protection—for the climbing above. It’s also a convenient place to have a drink and a quick bite to eat before the rhythm and mechanics of climbing are involved. From the trailhead, it’s roughly 45 to 60 minutes to get here.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The First Ice Bulge

Most years, Shoestring Gully has a short (20- to 30-foot), moderate ice bulge at the base of the climb. The bulge’s right side is typically less challenging, but one of the joys of Shoestring Gully is the opportunity to increase or decrease the climb’s difficulty to meet your skill level. On top of the bulge, climbers will find trees on both the gully’s left and right sides to use as anchors. As a tip, building an anchor on the left side offers a better view of followers, while building it a little higher on the right provides an easier transition to the snow pitches that follow.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Snow Pitches

After the first ice bulge, the next few rope lengths of the gully typically consist of moderate snow with a few interspersed ice patches. Climbers use a variety of techniques to move through this terrain, depending on experience, comfort, and conditions. Some parties will simply pitch out the snow, as they would on any other type of multi-pitch climb. Others will shorten the rope and simul-climb—that is, climb together with running protection between them. No matter how you choose to approach this terrain, however, the ice patches and occasional trees on the gully’s sides provide protection and anchor opportunities.

This section is also a great place to give your calves a break and show off your French technique (or practice it), thanks to the angle and nature of the snow. When the snow starts to transition to ice, the pitch begins to steepen, and the gully’s walls grow in prominence, build an anchor, and get ready for the day’s most technical climbing (44.17893, -71.385422).

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Climb Some Ice

The next three to four rope lengths are Shoestring’s “Ice Pitches.” They begin with a one-to-two pitch climb up several steps of moderate ice, before eventually transitioning to steep snow. The most consistent ice in this section is typically on the gully’s right side.

After a brief snow climb, the gully widens and becomes comparatively steeper. From here, there are three ways up. The rightmost variation climbs the line that hugs the wall on climber’s right and is generally considered the easiest route. The center variation heads directly up the middle of the gully, putting climbers on steeper—closer to WI3—and more difficult ice. Heading farther left puts you on even slightly steeper ice. Beware not to take the fun climbing on the far left variation too high, as it eventually climbs out of the main drainage and will require some bushwacking to get back on course.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

No matter which option you choose, the gully narrows after about two more pitches, with terrain turning into a combination of snow and intermittent ice patches. Trees line the left side, providing some protection and anchor-building opportunities. After roughly one-and-a-half rope lengths of snow-ish climbing, exit the gully into the woods.

Pro Tip: Parties that move quickly through the Snow Pitches can sometimes catch up to slower climbers just starting the Ice Pitches. Although the much-wider gully makes the Ice Pitches a tempting place to make a pass, be careful to avoid tangled ropes or getting stuck at an unprotected belay below a climber who’s raining down ice.

The optional WI3 finish looking thin. | Credit: Tim Peck
The optional WI3 finish looking thin. | Credit: Tim Peck

Optional Finishes

Shoestring Gully offers two alternative finishes for those looking to do more than simply slog up the snow at the top. The first option involves climbing the obvious rock wall on the climber’s right roughly one rope length below the woods. The climbing is moderately rated at 5.5, but finding protection can be tricky, especially if the ice is thin. The second alternative is found above the rock finish, and involves climbing a corner with ice rated up to WI3.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Descent

From the proper finish, climbers should continue walking into the woods until they reach the Webster Cliff Trail (44.179947, -71.382828). The path to the Webster Cliff Trail is often well-broken in, making it easy to locate. The intersection of Shoestring Gully and the Webster Cliff Trail is a great spot to regroup, pack away the climbing gear, and have something to eat. Once everything is packed and you’ve refueled, simply follow the Webster Cliff Trail back to Route 302 and your vehicle. As you head down, make sure to stop at the overlook just a few minutes from the top for a fantastic view of Mount Willard, Mount Willey, and the rest of Crawford Notch.

If you didn’t bring MICROspikes, leave your crampons on for the descent. The Webster Cliff Trail descends several steep sections and is often extremely icy. You’ll want the extra traction.


Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Kit

  • Never climb steep ice without a helmet. Shoestring Gully gets a lot of traffic, and the potential for someone knocking ice down is high. The Black Diamond Vector is a long-time favorite for its great fit and minimal weight.
  • Lugging a heavy rope 2,500 feet up is no fun. Consider lightening the load with the Sterling Rope Fusion Nano 9.0 dry rope.
  • The Black Diamond Dirtbag Gloves are just warm enough for most winter days, durable enough for ice climbing, and offer enough dexterity to handle the rope, making them a key to any Shoestring Gully kit.
  • Whether you’re pitching it out, simul-climbing, or mixing the two techniques, an ascent of Shoestring Gully often involves several stops and starts. A jacket like the EMS Alpine Ascender is the perfect insulation piece, as it keeps you warm when you’re stopped at the belay, but breathes when you’re on the move.
  • Winter days are short, and everything from conditions to other parties makes it longer than anticipated. Avoid getting stuck in the dark with the super-bright and easily rechargeable Black Diamond Revolt.
  • The Petzl Caritool Evo can be added to most harnesses and makes it easy to keep your climbing gear organized.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Keys to the Trip

  • Get there early! This is a popular climb, and arriving early is the surest way to beat the crowds. And, thanks to Shoestring Gully’s moderate grade and fun climbing, expect to encounter people of all abilities—from people taking their first turn on the sharp end to climbers going ropeless.
  • Shoestring Gully gets lots of sun, so it’s a great option even on cold days.
  • Be willing to do variations. There are ample opportunities to pass slower parties by doing different (and sometimes harder) variations of the route’s pitches.
  • If you finish with time to spare, consider climbing to the summit of Mount Webster, approximately 1.5 miles further up the Webster Cliff Trail. Or, consider climbing another of the area’s moderate multi-pitch routes, including Willey’s Slide, Flume Cascade, and Silver Cascade, to name a few.
  • If you worked up an appetite climbing, Fabyan’s Restaurant, located across from Bretton Woods, is nearby, or head into North Conway to visit Moat Mountain Smokehouse and Brewing Co., which is the place for climbers to congregate.
  • Not sure if you’re ready for Shoestring Gully? Contact the EMS Climbing School to arrange for a guided ascent, or spend a day brushing up on your ice skills with one of our guides.

Current Conditions

Have you climbed Shoestring recently? Post your experience and the conditions (with the date of your climb) in the comments for others!


Checking Boxes: The Importance of Your Gear List

When you’re training to run a 100-mile race, you have to prepare for everything. You run on cold days, just in case it’s cold during the race. You run on rainy days in case it rains. You eat things that end up wrecking your stomach, so that you don’t wreck your stomach during the race. You wear things that end up chafing, so that you know what won’t chafe during the race.

In July, near the peak of my training for the Yeti 100-Mile Endurance Run, I decided to run a Pemi Loop. This 32-mile loop of the Pemigewasset Wilderness summits eight 4,000-footers, and boasts over 8,000 feet of elevation gain. The loop itself is no joke, but in the context of training for a run more than three times that distance, it seemed like an achievable endeavor.

It could rain during my race, too, after all.

I started my drive from Boston long before the summer sun had cracked the sky. But, once it finally got bright enough, I noticed the clouds lingering on the horizon. The weather forecast had predicted a 25-percent chance of rain, but I needed to be prepared for everything. It could rain during my race, too, after all.

I had previously hiked most of the peaks I’d be running that day. In my mind, that made it achievable: I just had to string them all together. But, by the time I had reached Lincoln and turned onto the Kancamagus Highway, the dawn’s distant clouds had consumed the area and covered my windshield in a light, hazy rain. I rushed to get on the trail, forgoing gloves for lighter-weight hand warmers and ditching my poles. I have a list of items that I take on runs and a separate one for hikes, but decided to travel lighter to save time and weight.

Credit: Kelsey Conner
Credit: Kelsey Conner

The first mile of the lollipop course, starting at Lincoln Woods, is old railroad. The flat, soft ground made for easy running and a quick warm-up. I took my rain shell off and tied it around my waist before even making it to the Osseo Trailhead, and I considered taking my rain pants back to the car. The tree canopy along the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River, and almost all four miles up Mount Flume, appeared dense enough to give me the illusion of dryness. Occasional raindrops penetrated still-green leaves, but for the most part, I was warm and happy. The mountain’s steep walls reminded me of the bear I’d seen descending a similar slope a week before on Mount Cardigan, but I tried not to think about it.

When I did emerge from the woods for Flume’s summit approach, with trees on one side of the narrow trail, and steep, rocky drops on the other, it felt like I’d been dropped into another world.

I was moving slower than I anticipated, but was still in good spirits. Clouds capped the nearby mountains and deep mud pointed toward wet conditions at higher altitudes. But, when I did emerge from the woods for Flume’s summit approach, with trees on one side of the narrow trail, and steep, rocky drops on the other, it felt like I’d been dropped into another world. Wind gusted and rain bit at my bare arms and legs. The previously humid, almost tropical air felt at least 10 degrees cooler.

I ducked behind a boulder to adjust my clothing. Sleeves came down, I put my rain jacket and pants back on, and I secured my hat. However, I immediately lost the blazes that peppered the rocks around me and had to retrace my steps. A pang of doubt threatened my independent courage, but I told myself to slow down and be careful. It took an active effort to push panic away and keep moving.

Credit: Kelsey Conner
Credit: Kelsey Conner

The summit of Liberty brought more wind and rain. I tugged my Buff over my nose and mouth, stopping for a single selfie with the summit’s rocky face. I then dropped onto the Appalachian Trail, whose kind white blazes conjured memories of warm summer days in my home state of Georgia—memories that drew a sharp contrast to the current conditions.

I was starting to question my sanity, and wonder if I should keep going.

At that point, I was drenched. My rain jacket soaked through to my long sleeves, and my pants proved their worthlessness. Their elastic waistband was losing the battle to wet lower legs, and my pants started sagging down. I pulled them up as I ran, wondering if they were worth even the idea of warmth.

Little Haystack came and went, and I was on Franconia Ridge. Here, I should have been able to see the entire loop from my exposed vantage point. Instead, my view was limited to about 25 feet in front of me. The rocks were slippery, and it took everything in my power to stand up straight. I joked to myself that wind resistance counted as strength training.

A tiny patch of trees between Mount Lincoln and Mount Lafayette offered some brief shelter, and there, I sat down on the ground, trying to catch my breath. Lafayette’s summit loomed ahead of me, looking especially steep and foreboding. The trees surrounding me shuddered under the wind, and their leaves whistled. I jammed one half of my peanut butter sandwich into my mouth, despite my intentions to eat it at the loop’s halfway point, the AMC Galehead Hut. I was starting to question my sanity, and wonder if I should keep going. The only other mountain run I’d ever bailed on was a miserable, hungover attempt at the Futures Trail on Mount Ascutney. There, I called it quits after a family witnessed me vomit behind a tree. Giving up wasn’t a consideration, until I looked up at Lafayette and started calculating the remaining daylight.

Lightweight doesn’t mean much when you’re freezing.

I was nearly six hours in and less than halfway through the loop. I’d estimated that the run would take nine hours total. Thus, climbing Lafayette and continuing through the exposure along Garfield Ridge was looking less and less fun.

Not everything seems fun in the moment, though, I told myself. Thus, I decided to make a last-ditch effort towards Lafayette. But, as I dashed up the slick rocks towards the summit, I was knocked to my knees. “You win!” I screamed into the wind. After a summer full of sunshine and smooth hikes, I’d taken good weather for granted. I had picked peaks I’d bagged before and assumed that I knew what I was doing, while failing to pack the just-in-case items. Lightweight doesn’t mean much when you’re freezing. My beloved gear list, several years and hundreds of adventures in the making, had proved its worth.

Credit: Kelsey Conner
Credit: Kelsey Conner

I regretted my decision to turn back for a short moment, but when I slipped back under Flume’s dense canopy and started to warm up, I knew I had made the right call. As a result, when September rolled around and I started packing for my race, I built a list more comprehensive than ever before.

I’d like to say that it rained during my race, and I was able to utilize all of my gear, but that would be a lie. Though I ran under blue skies and warm sun, I had everything I needed, just in case.


The Top 6 Splitboarding Locations in the Northeast

While splitboarding does have many similarities to backcountry skiing, there are some subtle but important differences in the locations where participants prefer to “earn their turns.” First, when in touring mode, one is essentially skiing on two very large, heavy, and awkwardly shaped “skis.” This is simply a snowboard cut down the middle into two halves. Also making an approach more challenging are snowboard-style bindings and boots and the fact that many snowboarders have never skied.

While backcountry skiers often have no issue with rolling up and down hills or navigating tight icy turns on the way to a climb, many splitboarders prefer an approach that is relatively flat or continuously uphill. Secondly, splitboarders desire the same consistency, albeit in reverse, on their descents. While backcountry skiers can climb a short stretch of flats or rise in the middle of their descent, for a snowboarder, this means getting off your board to skate or carry it. Or, worse, you convert back to touring mode before another conversion to descend again.

Whether you’re a beginner looking to learn to skin at the resort, or a die-hard extremist seeking out that adrenaline rush, the Northeast does have some fantastic places to splitboard.

Courtesy: Magic Mountain
Courtesy: Magic Mountain

Magic Mountain, Vermont

A great way to get the hang of skinning and transitions as a beginner, or to just get some laps in, is to tour on resort trails. More and more resorts that used to frown on uphill travel are introducing policies that allow for such use during certain times, on certain trails, or with the purchase of an uphill pass. Magic, however, takes it a step further. Not only do they encourage uphill travel and riding anytime, anywhere, but they also celebrate it.

Use your own power to climb to the summit for a run. Or, stop to see a summit lift attendant, and they will give you a token to take one lift-serviced run on the house! Doing three or four laps with the skins gets you three or four runs on the lift and spells a free day of riding on a neat little mountain. All they ask is you consider grabbing a burger or beer at the lodge as a thank you! Find Magic off VT 11 just down the road from Bromley Mountain, right outside of Londonderry.

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway, New York

If you’re looking to get laps on the resort trails, here, you will have to stick to dawn patrol—only permitted with an uphill pass and outside of operating hours. However, the toll road, which runs up the mountain’s backside, is a local favorite for touring. Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway typically is the first “ski” of the early season and provides a gentle cruise down. For more advanced riders, the toll road can also provide access to the mountain’s many backcountry slides. Find the parking lot by the toll house a few miles from Wilmington, New York, just past the intersection with Gillespie Drive.

Courtesy: Jay Peak
Courtesy: Jay Peak

Jay Peak, Vermont

Offering what most consider some of the Northeast’s best snow and glades, Jay also has some backcountry attractions for splitboarders. Nearby Big Jay and Little Jay mountains offer some expert riding terrain, including the famous East Face of Big Jay. These glades and chutes are accessible via a ridge trail from the resort or a skin up starting on logging roads from Route 242. Be warned, though. This is a remote and challenging area, and you should be prepared, as always, for the unexpected. If you have the backcountry skills and the legendary Jay snow comes through, this can make for an epic tour.

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

Wright Peak, New York

One of the more popular locations for Adirondack backcountry, Wright Peak offers two primary options. The Wright Ski Trail offers a classic Northeast run linked with hiking trails and other backcountry ski runs. Alternatively, the Angel Slides offer some steeper and more challenging terrain, but must be approached with proper awareness of avalanche conditions and safety. Access to the Wright Ski Trail is off the trail to Algonquin Peak, starting from the Adirondack Loj. The Angel Slides involve a bushwhack approach, leaving trails from the camping areas around Marcy Dam.

Credit: Jim Kelly
Credit: Jim Kelly

Mount Washington, New Hampshire

The many ravines, gullies, and gulfs of the Northeast’s largest peak have long been a mecca for backcountry skiing and snowboarding. Certainly the East Coast’s most celebrated center of backcountry, the famous Tuckerman Ravine area sees hordes of visitors and offers dozens of possible lines. From Pinkham Notch, plan on climbing for two to three hours up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail to the main bowl. Most paths down the headwall are expert runs, which sometimes approach 45- to 50-degree angles and may include icefall, cliffs, and crevasses. For a slightly easier run, explore Left and Right Gullies. When you have had enough, the Shelburne Ski Trail offers a fun ride back down.

While the party at Tucks is certainly worth the hype, the “Rockpile” has countless other treasures. For another open bowl with that larger West Coast mountain feel, head to the nearby Gulf of Slides. Starting from the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, the Gulf of Slides Trail climbs moderately for 2.5 miles to the base of several large gullies up the ridge between Boott Spur and Slide Peak.

Credit: Lucas LaBarre
Credit: Lucas LaBarre

Mount Greylock, Massachusetts

The highest point in Massachusetts is also home to the legendary Thunderbolt Ski Trail. Starting at a parking area on Thiel Road just outside of North Adams, the Thunderbolt climbs over 2,000 feet to get close to Mount Greylock’s summit. This trail was home to many classic downhill races, and in the present, local groups keep this backcountry must-do in great shape. It is steep in sections and definitely an expert run. On a cold day, climb the extra few hundred feet from the top of the ski trail, using the Appalachian Trail, to the summit, where you can warm up in a large stone hut equipped with a wood stove.


Top 5 Winter Hikes Under 5 Miles in the White Mountains

Winter hiking in the White Mountains can be extremely rewarding. Not only can you avoid the crowds, but also, you’re able to see the mountains in a vastly different light. You’ll further find that there’s nothing quite like the tundra experience atop some of New Hampshire’s tallest peaks. Here, you’ll see pines encased with perfectly white snow, and trails full of fresh powder or slicked with ice. And, whether you’re new to winter hiking, or looking for a quick lunchtime trek to burn off those holiday calories, the Whites have a winter-wonderland of options.

Credit: Maxwell DesMarais
Credit: Maxwell DesMarais

Mount Willard

Mount Willard is easily one of the Whites’ most rewarding hikes. Specifically, with minimal effort, you can experience stunning views of Crawford Notch. The notch’s southern slopes rise over 1,500 ft. to the summit, and to the left, the exposed rocks of Mount Webster’s cliffs are ice covered. Together, these features create a striking contrast of dark rocks and pure white ice. As you make your way to the thousand-foot cliff rising from the valley floor, you wonder how you could have ascended so quickly.

The trailhead begins at the train station just east of the AMC Highland Center at Crawford Notch. The Mount Willard Trail then climbs gradually over 1.6 miles to the cliff overlooking Route 302 and the Saco River. If you have never hiked in winter, Willard is the perfect starter peak. Particularly, the gradual incline keeps ice and snow manageable for all levels, without the need for crampons or other more serious gear.

Credit: Maxwell DesMarais
Credit: Maxwell DesMarais

Cannon Mountain

A winter hiking essential, Cannon is one of the few New Hampshire 4,000-footers that you can hike round-trip in under five miles. Located in Franconia Notch, it has incredible views of Mount Lafayette and Franconia Ridge to the east and North and South Kinsman to the south. Here, the strong winds and elevation create multiple layers of ice that envelope the summit tower. The 360-degree views show off the flat lands to the northwest, the white-tipped pines of the Kinsman Ridge Trail, and the steep valley of Franconia Notch. You’ll even get a glimpse of the ski lift up Cannon.

The Kinsman Ridge trail (a.k.a. Hi-Cannon Trail) can be accessed from the Cannon Mountain Ski Area parking lot off I-93, and offers a very short four-mile round-trip hike to the summit. The trail is fairly steep and likely requires MICROspikes, but the views from the observation tower are worth it. As you ascend, the incline will get your heart pumping, and the breathtaking sights will keep it going long after you stop.

Credit: Chris Picardi
Credit: Chris Picardi

Arethusa Falls

Also in Crawford Notch, Arethusa Falls involves a 2.6-mile round-trip hike to a stunning waterfall. Over the 1.3 miles from the parking lot, you’ll climb roughly 800 feet along the Bemis Brook Trail, which parallels Bemis Brook. Here, you can always stop to listen to the falling waters, or take a look at the unique rock formations carved by the brook. And, at the end, there’s nothing like seeing a 140-foot ice wall looming over you. If you come at just the right time, you may be lucky enough to see water rushing down the middle, flanked by ice walls on either side.

Credit: @ayu_river
Credit: @ayu_river

Ripley Falls

Ripley Falls is located just a couple miles up the notch from the trailhead for Arethusa Falls, with parking clearly marked along Route 302. At only 1.2 miles round-trip, this short hike along the Ripley Falls Trail is great if you only have an hour or two to spare. While Ripley Falls isn’t quite as steep as Arethusa Falls, it still creates a giant ice slide that can completely cover the entire cascade, leaving no rock exposed. Consider combining both in a day via the Arethusa-Ripley Falls Trail.

Glen-Boulder-Winter

Glen Boulder

The Glen Boulder trailhead is located just south of Pinkham Notch on Route 16 at the Glen Ellis Parking Area. The trail up is a steep 3.6-mile round-trip hike—perfect for those wanting a more challenging workout. In less than 1.5 miles, you will the reach treeline, where you’ll get to see gorgeous views of Mount Washington and Pinkham Notch. In winter, you may need snowshoes, and should bring MICROspikes for traction. Glen Boulder appears to beg for a nudge off the mountainside. So, if you’re bold, stand on top of it.

Going beyond Glen Boulder gives you even better views. But, understand that snow drifts can create very deep powder on the ridge to Boott Spur. To prepare, snowshoes are recommended. For a bonus, check out Glen Ellis Falls at the trailhead. To get here, a short trail leading under Route 16 takes you a short distance to what may be New Hampshire’s best waterfall.


Senior Superlatives: Ski Resort Bars

Winter is finally upon us, which means it’s time to dust off your skis or snowboard and head for the glorious, snow-covered hills. For the drinkers among us, it also means it’s time to reacquaint ourselves with some of New England’s greatest watering holes. As you plan your next ski trip, don’t forget to take into account the après scene at whichever resort you’re considering, and spend a little time thinking about the perfect bar for you.

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Bar most likely to have snowboarders pretending to be skiers: General Stark’s Pub, Mad River Glen

While the trails at Mad River Glen are available only to skiers, General Stark’s Pub welcomes boarders as well. Boasting some of Vermont’s best brews on tap, a view of the iconic single chair, and a rad old-school atmosphere that other resorts would die for, General Stark’s is a two-plank paradise guaranteed to convince snowboarders that “two is better than one” applies to more than just drinks.

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Best bar for a midday refueling: Onset Pub, Crotched Mountain

You’re probably thinking to yourself, “Uh, isn’t every ski bar good for a midday drink?” And, the answer is “yes.” But, Onset Pub at Crotched teamed up with Henniker Brewing a few seasons ago to create their delicious signature IPA called “Rocket Fuel,” named after the mountain’s high-speed lift, the Rocket. Thus, this drink makes Onset the best bar for a lunchtime refuel. Just be careful, though. This super-smooth brew is 7% ABV and has maybe resulted in skiers calling it a day a little earlier than planned.

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Bar most likely to have skiers wearing jeans: Coppertop Lounge, Wachusett Mountain

I’ve often heard that Wachusett Mountain is one of the country’s most profitable ski areas. It sounds absurd at first, but then, you realize how conveniently located it is—30 minutes from Worcester, an hour from Boston, and just over an hour from Providence—and it all makes sense. However, Wachusett’s proximity also means that it attracts a large number of “I ski once or twice a year and don’t actually own ski pants” skiers. If you don’t notice them on the slopes, they’ll definitely catch your attention when you head into the bar for some après libations. They’re the ones rocking snow-soaked denim and looking miserable.

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Most fun bar name: Schwendi Hutte, Waterville Valley

I mean, does this one even need an explanation? If you’re not convinced “Schwendi Hutte” is fun to say, you’re probably pronouncing it incorrectly. Or, perhaps, you just need a second round.

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Best bar to leave your boots on: Paul Bunyan Room, Loon Mountain

Whether it’s the roaring fire, the stoked patrons, or its closeness to the gondola (and the accompanying lure of “just one more run!”), there’s something about the Bunyan Room in Loon Mountain’s Base Lodge that begs you to keep your boots on. Of course, it could also be that the 11 a.m. opening time has you seated at the bar well before après has begun, and there’s just no way you can call it a day so soon.

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Best spring deck scene: Wildcat Pub, Wildcat Mountain

In addition to having some of the best spring skiing conditions in New Hampshire, Wildcat is also one of my favorite places to après in the late season. While the deck itself seems small and quickly gets crowded, everyone there is undoubtedly happy—the aforementioned baller conditions may play a role—and the air is simply abuzz with stoke. From the deck, you can also get a great view of the slopes and prime seating for watching the action without getting wet on pond skim day.

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Best bar at a “family friendly” mountain: Black Bear Tavern, Smugglers’ Notch

Just because Vermont’s Smugglers’ Notch has earned a reputation for being one of the Northeast’s most family-friendly resorts doesn’t mean it isn’t equipped with an awesome bar. The Black Bear Tavern, located in the mountain’s base lodge, offers a great selection of strong local Vermont beers. It’s perfect for drowning your sorrows after getting smoked by the kiddos on the region’s only triple black diamond run, Black Hole.

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Most likely to make you spend even more than the cost of your lift ticket: Castlerock Pub, Sugarbush

Vermont is renowned for many things: rolling green hills, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and, most importantly, micro brews. Located in the heart of beer country are Sugarbush Resort and Castlerock Pub. While Sugarbush’s Castlerock Peak delivers some of the resort’s best terrain, its namesake pub features some of Vermont’s best and most-sought-after brews, including iconic ales from producers like the Alchemist, Lawson’s, and Hill Farmstead. You can easily spend more time at the bar than on the hill, and more money at the bar than at the ticket window.

 

And, now, over to you, fellow ski beer enthusiasts: Which New England ski resort bar is your favorite and why? Tell us about it in the comments, so we can head there next weekend!


The Legend of Mike Matty

There are 157 names on the wall, and we stood there, reading each one in an uneasy silence. This mountain—the one we were currently standing atop—has killed more than its fair share of hikers, climbers, and skiers.

The Sherman Adams Visitor Center’s double doors crashed open, blowing in near-hurricane-force winds and a bone-chilling cold. The man who walked in had a balaclava and ski goggles completely masking his face. The weather had turned overnight from cold-but-manageable to now dangerous, idling at around 25 degrees Fahrenheit, with wind speeds hitting 74 MPH. For a moment, everything seemed to stop, as this mysterious man strolled across the room with the weather appearing to have no effect on him. The rime ice that had been engineered onto the masked man’s shell jacket immediately started melting and dropping off behind him as he made his way to a bench.

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There weren’t any hikers or tourists up here today—the weather had turned them all away. So, I assumed he was with the state park. But, that didn’t make sense. I had become quite familiar with the team in the observatory after spending the night in their quarters, having dinner with them, and chatting it up about the weather, gear, Game of Thrones, and The Pats’ upcoming season. I didn’t recognize this guy, and the dayglow orange shell, trekking poles, and Black Diamond gloves were clearly not state-issued.

Sharon hustled over to him. “Hi…I’m Sharon,” she said in a hesitant tone that I hadn’t heard even a hint of since I’d met her the day before. As a Coast Guard commander prior to becoming the president of the Observatory, doubt wasn’t a part of her make-up. Earlier in the morning, she had been warning us that our descent down the Auto Road would be delayed, as they put chains on the Observatory van’s tires. And, there was absolutely no way she could allow our two store staff members, Amy and Eric, to hike back down the mountain. The sight of this man calmly strolling in from the churning weather threw off her game a bit.

“Are you an Observatory member?” she asked incredulously.

“Yeah, I think my name is up on the wall, over there somewhere,” he said and casually strode over to a different wall made of blue name plates lining the stairs that went down to the museum for the Observatory’s top donors and members. His nonchalant attitude toward it added a new layer of curiosity. I turned and looked in the direction of his outstretched trekking pole. “Mike Matty” read the white lettering on the plate.

IMG_2339“Oh, welcome! I’m the president of the Observatory,” Sharon replied, smoothing her demeanor now that she knew the potential trespasser had literally paid his dues

“We have the folks from EMS with us for an overnight. This is Tom,” she said as she introduced my boss.

“I’m surprised you made the trek, given the weather,” Tom commented, clearly still feeling the shock of this stranger ambling out of the roiling weather as if he were coming back from a walk in the park.

“That’s why I came up,” Mike deadpanned. “So, you work at EMS?” Mike asked Tom, our Vice President of Ecommerce and Marketing. “My nephew loves that store.”

I chuckled to myself, as I made my way over to windows in the rotunda. Outside, the rime ice flowered and grew seemingly out of nowhere, carried by the dense cloud enveloping the summit. I felt like I had woken up on a different planet. Not even 18 hours ago, our ascent up the Auto Road had been sunny, calm, and beautiful.

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“The home of the world’s worst weather” is a catchphrase Mount Washington has certainly earned. The hike up itself isn’t one the most dangerous or difficult. Rather, this 6,288-foot peak’s volatile conditions are the reason for those 157 names posted in the Adams Center.

The gusts whipping up over the western corner of the deck made it feel like you were stuck in the world’s worst washing machine. A 10-minute, 30-foot trek from the door to the corner and back had exhausted me.

Mount Washington is in a unique position. The highest point east of the Mississippi, it sits directly at the epicenter of a topographical funnel that compresses and accelerates the wind to such an extreme that the 231 MPH wind speed recorded at the summit in 1934 still stands today as the fastest-ever observed by man. It’s even said that the sheer force of the wind tore apart the measuring instruments. Only once was this record ever beaten, at an unmanned weather station in Australia in 1996.

“He’s climbed the seven peaks!” I thought I heard Amy squeal behind me to Eric. She excitedly handed her phone over for a picture with Mike. Amy’s sudden exuberance seemed odd, but I was more focused on the portentous conditions threatening to trap us on the summit. As Eric handed the camera back to her, Mike started reassembling his gear for the descent.

I thought about our earlier excursion out on the deck of the observatory. We had to gear up in MICROspikes to gain some semblance of traction, leaning into frigid, hurricane-force winds. The gusts whipping up over the western corner of the deck made it feel like you were stuck in the world’s worst washing machine. A 10-minute, 30-foot trek from the door to the corner and back had exhausted me.

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This guy had hiked all the way up in that, and was about to hike all the way back down, too. I shuddered. Mike adjusted his goggles before punching the exit door depressor. A 15-minute break had been enough to rest, dry off, and get warm before he plunged back into weather that would make the average person cower and yearn for their Uggs and a cozy Duraflame fire.

He was training for bigger things, searching for the conditions to match his more sizable feats, and found them on this windy New Hampshire peak more than 4.5 times smaller than Everest.

Sitting back at my desk on Monday, I couldn’t get the mysterious encounter with Mike out of my head. It was odd. Who was this guy? What did he mean when he said that the weather was the reason he hiked up? So, I did what any red-blooded, digitally inclined American would do.

To my slack-jawed, wide-eyed amazement, the Google results showed that Mike had indeed mastered the seven summits: Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, Mount Vinson in Antarctica, Kosciuszko in Australia, Elbrus in Europe, Denali in North America, Aconcagua in South America, and, the crown jewel of them all, Everest.

To Mike, the conditions on Mount Washington that day, September 1, were ideal. He was training for bigger things, searching for the conditions to match his more sizable feats, and found them on this windy New Hampshire peak more than 4.5 times smaller than Everest. The harsher the conditions were, the better his training.

Or, maybe that’s just how an outdoor masochist gets some exercise. Who knows.

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Alpha Guide: Franconia Ridge in Winter

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

Take on one of the Northeast’s most stunning ridgelines while tagging two of New Hampshire’s 10 tallest mountains.

A true classic, this winter hike crosses one of the White Mountains’ most prominent features, Franconia Ridge; delivers moderate climbing that doesn’t require the use of an ice axe; and features a roughly 1.5-mile above-treeline ridge run between Little Haystack and Mount Lafayette. With 360-degree views of the Whites from the ridge, it is one of the Northeast’s most beautiful hikes. And, with a large section of above-treeline hiking, it’s also one of the region’s most exposed hikes, making it a fantastic winter test piece.

 

Quick Facts

Distance: 9 miles round-trip
Time to Complete: 1 day
Difficulty: ★★★★
Scenery: ★★★★★


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Turn-By-Turn

Most hike Franconia Ridge as a loop, beginning and ending at the Falling Waters and Old Bridle Path trailhead and parking lot on Interstate 93N (44.142048, -71.681206) in Franconia Notch State Park.

Hikers driving north on I-93 will find the parking lot just after the exit for The Basin trailhead. Hikers coming from the other direction should park in the Lafayette Place Campground parking lot and use the tunnel that goes under I-93 to access the lot and trailhead. The trailhead is opposite the entrance to the parking lot, where it climbs a short, paved incline to an outhouse and then becomes dirt as it heads into the woods.

Hikers, take notice: This ultra-classic hike is super-popular on weekends and holidays. So, get there early to find a parking spot.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Time to split

Just 0.2 miles in, hikers will come to the junction (44.139702, -71.679512) of the Falling Waters Trail and the Old Bridle Path. The loop is best done counterclockwise, first up the Falling Waters Trail and then descending the Old Bridle Path. The Falling Waters Trail, which veers right at the junction, gets extremely icy in winter and is much easier to go up than down. Plus, the various waterfalls are more scenic on the approach, as well as more easily overcome with fresh legs early in the day.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Following Falling Waters

From the junction, the Falling Waters Trail heads southeast on a moderate track, until it reaches Dry Brook. From there, the trail intermittently steepens and poses some small technical challenges, as it crisscrosses the icy stream climbing under, around, and over a series of semi-frozen waterfalls. Between the water and ice, the footing along here is often slick, and you’ll probably want your MICROspikes and a pair of trekking poles to negotiate the potentially treacherous terrain. Take care not to slip or plunge a foot into the brook.

Eventually, the trail leaves the brook and begins a series of long, gradual switchbacks up toward Shining Rock. As the trail moves away from the brook, the short, steep, and technical sections dissipate, and the terrain and grade become more consistent—especially once the snow on the ground is packed and covering the ordinarily rocky and rooty terrain.

Shining Rock

After 2.5 miles, the Falling Waters Trail reaches a junction with a short spur trail (44.140186, -71.650940) that heads downhill to Shining Rock, a large granite slab flanking Little Haystack Mountain and visible from Interstate 93. If you have time (remember, darkness comes early in the winter), consider the brief detour.

The Shining Rock junction is also a great place to refuel, add an extra layer and traction devices (if you haven’t already), and get your above-treeline gear ready (such as a balaclava, warmer gloves, goggles, etc.). From the junction, continue upward on the Falling Waters Trail, which steepens and gradually becomes more exposed to the weather for the final 0.5-mile push to the 4,760-foot summit of Little Haystack.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Little Haystack

Shortly after departing the junction for Shining Rock, hikers will push past the treeline to the rocky and icy landscape of Little Haystack Mountain’s summit (44.140362, -71.646080). Although Little Haystack isn’t one of the 48 New Hampshire 4,000-footers (it’s technically a subpeak of Mount Lincoln, the next stop on your journey), it is an awesome summit with fantastic views. Find the hard-to-miss summit cairn, and then, head north on the Franconia Ridge Trail toward Mount Lincoln.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Mount Lincoln

From Little Haystack, it’s 0.7 miles to Mount Lincoln’s summit. The path is easy to follow and, at first, quite moderate. Then, it begins to climb on rockier terrain and crests an ego-deflating false summit, all the while offering fantastic views in every direction and fully exposing you to the wind and weather.

Once you get to the summit of 5,089-foot Mount Lincoln (44.148682, -71.644707), the first of two New Hampshire 4,000-footers on the traverse, take a moment—or more, if the weather allows—to soak in the dramatic landscape and fantastic views. From here, you get views in all directions, with the Kinsmans, Lonesome Lake, and Cannon Cliff to the west and the Pemigewasset Wilderness to the east. To the south, the pyramid-like tops of Mount Liberty and Mount Flume dominate the view, while to the north lies your next objective, the summit of Mount Lafayette.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Mount Lafayette

Standing one mile away on the Franconia Ridge is the day’s high point, the 5,260-foot summit of Mount Lafayette. To get there, you’ll give up much of the elevation you’ve gained since Little Haystack by descending rocky, slabby terrain similar to what you just ascended. The saddle has a scrubby pine grove, which provides a brief respite from the weather on less-optimal days. Beware that snow can build up in the trees, making this section more difficult and take longer than you may have expected.

From the trees, the Franconia Ridge Trail makes a sharp ascent—the steepest section since the climb from Shining Rock to Little Haystack—to Mount Lafayette’s summit. Relatively straightforward, the climb does contain a few slabby sections and rock outcroppings that warrant your full attention before you get to the summit.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The High Point

Lafayette’s summit (44.160717, -71.644470) is well marked with both a large cairn and sign, and is quickly recognizable, as it’s the region’s highest point. If the weather is good, grab a seat in one of the summit’s windbreaks—rock walls built to shield hikers from the elements—and soak up the views. The 4,500-foot Mount Garfield looms in the north, and on clear days, the Presidential Range is visible behind it. To the south, you can admire the distance you’ve traveled, as the peaks of Mount Lincoln and Little Haystack are both visible from this vantage point.

The windbreaks are also a great place to have a quick snack. And, don’t de-layer just yet, as there is still some exposed trail left on the descent.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Descent

From Lafayette’s summit, take the 1.1-mile Greenleaf Trail toward the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Greenleaf Hut. This section is well defined, but the vast majority of it is above-treeline and is very exposed to the weather—in particular, winds blowing from the northwest.

With the hut visible most of the way, progress can feel sluggish. The slow-going is often exaggerated by the trail’s rugged nature, made even more difficult by patches of snow and ice.

As you near the Greenleaf Hut, the trail dips into tree cover, the first real break in exposure you’ve had for nearly three miles. You’re not out of the woods yet, though, as the area around the hut is often very icy.

Unlike during the summer, there is no hot chocolate, soup, or delicious baked goods in your future—unless you brought your own—as Greenleaf Hut (44.160206, -71.660316) is closed in the winter. However, the building itself provides a good windbreak and is a logical place to stop for a snack and to de-layer.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Old Bridle Path

From the hut, take the Old Bridle Path for 2.7 miles to the Falling Waters trail junction, and then, enjoy the short walk back to the car. Below treeline, hikers may feel that the crux of the day is behind them, but the Old Bridle Path’s upper third is challenging and, in places, exposed. Use care negotiating these ledges, slabs, and steep sections.

As you descend the ledges, take a moment to peer back up at the ridge. It’s nice to enjoy the relative warmth of the sun found on these protected ledges while you peer up at the ridge and remember the bone-chilling cold experienced only a short time ago.

After the ledges, the Old Bridle Path begins to mellow, getting more forested with progressively easier switchbacks. From here, it’s a straightforward, albeit longish, walk back to the junction and then to the car.


Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Kit

  • Trekking poles and traction devices, like Kahtoola MICROspikes, are essential for negotiating the icy terrain on the ascent and descent. And, although the wind often blows the snow off the ridge proper, it, too, can be quite icy.
  • Bring a vast array of winter accessories to contend with unpredictable, above-treeline winter conditions. A winter hat, balaclava, multiclava, and gloves of varying warmth are a good place to start. And, if there’s wind in the forecast, goggles should also be included.
  • A warm down or synthetic parka, like the Outdoor Research Incandescent Hoody, is great for staying warm during rest breaks, cold traverses and descents, and emergencies.
  • Because it gets dark quickly in the winter and the Old Bridle Path descent is treacherous, add a headlamp, like the Black Diamond Spot, to your pack.
  • Snickers bars and gels are great in the summer but can freeze in the frigid temperatures. Nature Valley bars, trail mix, and leftover pizza—just to name a few—are all excellent winter food choices that won’t freeze in your pack.

Have more questions about what gear to bring? Check out “What’s in Our Winter Peak-Bagging Packs.” Don’t be that guy in jeans and a hoodie hiking across the ridge.


Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Keys to the Trip

  • Need a good reason for an alpine start? The parking lots fill up fast! In the summer, excess traffic even goes along the highway, but depending on the amount of snow the mountains have received, that might not be an option in winter.
  • Start cold, so you won’t have to stop after 10 minutes to lose a layer. More importantly, if you’re not over-layered, you’re less likely to sweat through your garments and will stay warmer in the long run.
  • Bring a thermos of something hot to drink. It’s great for warming up your core temperature and a nice morale booster when the going gets cold.
  • Know when to say when. If you get above treeline and decide that it’s too windy or too cold, or you just have a bad feeling, don’t hesitate to turn around before committing to the traverse.
  • Have a backup plan. If you live a few hours from the mountains, like many people do, it can be hard to know exactly what the weather will be doing until you get there. If the weather isn’t cooperating for a traverse, Mount Liberty and Cannon Mountain are close by and are less committing than Franconia Ridge.
  • After a cold day in the mountains, warm up at One Love Brewery in Lincoln, New Hampshire. Their Meat Lover’s Burger features grilled pork belly, BBQ pulled pork, jalapeño slaw, and Swiss cheese, and is a great way to replace some of the calories you burned!

Current Conditions

Have you hiked Franconia Ridge recently? Post your experience and the trail conditions (with the date of your hike) in the comments for others!

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck